Better Call Saul

Yesterday, The A.V. Club ran down the first half of the year’s best television, from Last Week Tonight to You’re The Worst. Today: the best of the best, featuring robot cowboys, nasty women, and a dream team of legal and legal-adjacent shows grappling with moral, mental, and media crises.

15. Insecure (HBO)

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Issa Dee is 29 and doesn’t know what she wants. Losing passion for her work and her long-term relationship, she feels the urge to reinvent herself, but what is she willing to sacrifice on her path to fulfillment? This is the central conflict of Insecure. Few shows capture the anxiety and pressure of being in your late 20s with as much care and vitality as this one. Co-creator (with TV veteran Larry Wilmore) and star Issa Rae is the show’s anchor, and her profound connection to the main character results in an exceptionally well-rounded performance, equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, frustrating and endearing. Jay Ellis and Yvonne Orji round out the main cast as Issa’s boyfriend and best friend, respectively, and their chemistry with Rae gives the show its heart. With its focus on young black professionals, Insecure stands out in HBO’s predominantly white lineup, and it actively engages with topics like code-switching, racism in the workplace, and the expectations placed on black men and women in both their careers and romantic relationships. Then there’s the magic of “Broken Pussy,” a song Issa performs in the pilot. That scene is a prime example of Insecure’s delicate balance of drama and comedy, and just when it looks like “Broken Pussy” is in the past, it comes back to play a major role in the back half of the season. [Oliver Sava]

14. Documentary Now! (IFC)

Last year, just the existence of a show that knowingly parodied classic documentaries was like a mini miracle. In season two, Documentary Now! upped its difficulty level, with episodes like “Globesman” (a spoof of the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin’s 1969 verité masterpiece Salesman) and “Mr. Runner Up” (based on Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen’s The Kid Stays In The Picture), which demanded an even more exacting tone and visual style, as well as episodes like the dual Jonathan Demme performance-film homages “Final Transmission” and “Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything,” which required convincing recreations of the work of Talking Heads and Spalding Gray, respectively. Co-creators Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Seth Meyers (with key contributors John Mulaney, Erik Kenward, and directors Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono) aren’t just flattering their fellow movie geeks with their references; they’re delivering loving explications of what makes their source material so special by copying the visual textures and deeper themes. And through it all, they’re not forgetting to be funny, filling episodes with quirky, quotable lines like, “At an early age, Enzo learned to do B or B-minus level comedy.” Documentary Now!’s re-watchability level rivals the films it’s re-creating, which may be the show’s most extraordinary achievement. [Noel Murray]

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13. Rectify (Sundance TV)

In 2015, The A.V. Club wrote that “Rectify remains the most hauntingly beautiful show on television.” Fast-forward a year later as Rectify wraps up its fourth, and final, season: That statement remains just as true as the fact that the show is still unfairly overlooked. Aden Young’s portrayal of Daniel Holden—a man freed from death row yet imprisoned by a lack of closure—is still one of the most understated and unsung performances on television, especially in a year when his castmates Abigail Spencer and Clayne Crawford left Paulie for the type of broadcast-network roles that attract far more viewers than their stellar work there. But that lack of popularity makes sense, as no show on television truly captures the feeling of isolation—the pain, monotony, and melancholy—and self-reflection as well as Rectify does. As it heads toward its finale, Rectify continues to be the perfect embodiment of “slow” television without feeling manipulative or aimless, just heartbreakingly real and oftentimes breathtakingly so. [LaToya Ferguson]

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12. Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (TBS)

The 2016 election season was horrifying, but it could have been worse: What if we didn’t have Samantha Bee to show us the way? Our comedy news pundits became more valuable than ever as the presidential election got more and more contentious and disgusting, until the surprising and horrific results split the country in half. A grateful Democratic nation turned to John Oliver, Trevor Noah, and Stephen Colbert, but as the only woman in the game, Bee had a special role to play, and nailed it. She can’t even be confined to a desk, instead standing before the cameras and railing at viewers about how white people ruined the election (“I guess ruining Brooklyn was just a dry run”). The injustices perpetrated upon popular-vote winner Hillary Clinton can seem only too familiar for Bee, who was passed over as Jon Stewart’s replacement on The Daily Show, then went on to create her own enterprise. Now she’s torching Trump’s cabinet picks (“Reince Priebus is an anagram for ‘Eerie RNC Pubis’”) and calling out the “alt-right” for what they are: white nationalists. No one knows what the next four years will bring, but we’ll be grateful to have Bee’s unflinching, feminist take on every fresh hell unearthed by the Trump administration. [Gwen Ihnat]

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11. Westworld (HBO)

Plagued by shutdowns and last-minute script rewrites—not to mention the pressure to be the Game Of Thrones-size hit HBO needs (and its budget demands)—Westworld seemed destined to short-circuit before it could even bring itself online. And while Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s series, adapted from Michael Crichton’s 1973 film about killer cowboy androids, may not have Thrones’ rich characterization or sense of weighty, meticulously crafted mythology—at least, not yet—Westworld does feel similarly big in a way HBO dramas haven’t since that show premiered, and it’s invited comparable obsession and debate. True, much of that debate has highlighted Westworld’s chief problem: Its first season was heavy on endless puzzle-box intrigue, the kind that invites nonstop fan theorizing and attendant viewer weariness, often at the expense of fostering a deeper connection. Still, with such a beautiful, endlessly expansive sandbox to play in, and such a stacked cast to fill it, there’s plenty of potential for Westworld to become a smarter machine going forward. Hopefully, now that so many of their first-season mysteries were cracked almost instantaneously by internet sleuthing, Nolan and Joy will learn to settle down and focus on the journey, rather than forever racing toward the center of their maze. But in the meantime, it’s been a fun, instantly addictive ride—the kind HBO hasn’t had in a while. [Sean O’Neal]

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10. The Good Place (NBC)

In his move from Pawnee to the hereafter (with a detour through New York City), Parks And Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine co-creator Michael Schur consulted philosophical texts, ethical treatises, and one of the guys who made Lost. Schur’s destination was a metaphysical sitcom that asks the question “What does it mean to be ‘good’?” and The Good Place has plenty of answers—in terms of human goodness and quality TV. Our case study is one Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), a “medium” person mistakenly granted access to an afterlife that’s both cheerfully rewarding (No hangovers! The power of flight! Frozen-yogurt shops as far as the eye can see!) and crushingly bureaucratic (Admission is determined by a running tally of your earthly actions!). Her efforts to pass as one of the chosen few provide a spine for the show’s first season, but they’re by no means the entire body. The writing staff (which includes more than a few Parks And Rec all-stars) surrounds Bell with a neighborhood of personalities whose stories didn’t end when their lives did. It’s an inventive, thought-provoking, visually rich mode for the type of comedy-of-community that Schur excels at—plus it gives Ted Danson the weekly opportunity to marvel at and/or drolly react to quirks of human existence, be they saltines or vanity license plates. [Erik Adams]

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9. O.J.: Made In America (ESPN)

While FX went all-in on a fictional retelling of the O.J. Simpson trial, ESPN found success by betting that the real thing was just as compelling. In O.J.: Made In America, the network channeled its smart, insightful 30 For 30 series into a five-part documentary about not only Simpson’s arrest and trial but also the social and economic conditions that both birthed and hindered Simpson’s rise to prominence. While everyone above 30 knows the intricacies of the trial detailed in Ryan Murphy’s project, O.J.: Made In America flourished in its exploration of race and the ways that Simpson tempered his blackness during his rise to the top and then used it to his advantage after the trial. The look at Simpson’s eventual spiral into nightclub dweller and current convict is also fascinating, if only because it serves as a reminder of how quickly everything can go wrong. [Marah Eakin]

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8. BoJack Horseman (Netflix)

Fans have come to expect as many heartbreaking moments as big laughs from Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s animated comedy, but even a two-season foundation couldn’t quite prepare viewers for the devastation of BoJack Horseman’s latest outing. The dissolute equine was on the road to Oscar, but it wasn’t enough to keep him off a self-charted path of destruction. BoJack (Will Arnett) continued to unravel even as his friends—Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), Todd (Aaron Paul), Diane (Alison Brie), and Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins)—gained some small measures of success in their personal and professional lives. The decision to branch out even further from BoJack was a smart one, and not just because it meant a break from the emotional trauma. It would have all been too much, man—to paraphrase Sarah Lynn’s Horsin’ Around character—if there weren’t so much delightfully absurd humor in every episode. An “improvised” awards nominations presentation and dozens of plays on Jessica Biel’s name provided plenty of full-throated and/or uncomfortable laughs throughout. Guest stars like Jeffrey Wright, Angela Bassett, Mara Wilson, and Candice Bergen—not to mention beloved character actress Margo Martindale—fell right into the rhythms established by the core voice cast, which was tighter than ever. The satire remained razor-sharp, channeled through a failed sitcom and cause célèbre gone wrong. If that weren’t enough, it also featured one of the best episodes of TV this year, period. [Danette Chavez]

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7. Veep (HBO)

Veep soldiered into its fifth season still holding the title of television’s best comedy but without creator Armando Iannucci, whose brand of cynical, corrosive patter gave the show its muscle. The show was placed in good hands with former Curb Your Enthusiasm writer David Mandel, but Veep was in the same position as its characters, fretting over how to transition from climbing a gilded ladder to clinging to its top rung. Luckily, Veep also went into its fifth year armed with the same cast of ringers including Tony Hale, Gary Cole, and Anna Chlumsky. Star Julia Louis-Dreyfus deservedly extended her unyielding Emmy dominance with a perfectly bittersweet performance as interim President Selina Meyer in “Mother.” The season also saw the unexpected rise of Selina’s daughter, Catherine (Sarah Sutherland), who went from a thankless brooding teen to serving in the show’s comedic cabinet and shouldering her own storylines. Veep’s biggest challenges are still ahead of it, with Meyer losing the Oval Office just before the real-life election upset that made political satire the hardest job in comedy. But if any group of bumbling bureaucrats knows how to forge ahead when literally nothing goes according to plan, it’s this one. [Joshua Alston]

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6. Halt And Catch Fire (AMC)

For a show that’s ostensibly about machines and their socially maladroit creators, AMC’s Halt And Catch Fire has evolved into one of television’s most deeply human dramas. Far removed from the dark, antihero-driven ’80s Mad Men it started off as, these days the series Halt most resembles is Six Feet Under. Behind all the retro trappings and technology drama, it’s primarily a character study of the complex emotional bonds we form with our families and co-workers—which this season were one and the same, with everyone under one roof at Mutiny’s new San Francisco headquarters. Even with Joe (Lee Pace) role-playing as a messianic Steve Jobs—plus all the token HIV-scare plots and John Grisham-esque corporate intrigue of his storyline—this year the show repeatedly grounded itself in Donna (Kerry Bishé) and her attempts to come into her own professionally—often at the expense of her relationships with Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and Gordon (Scoot McNairy). Watching these characters navigate their fragile allegiances and the quiet betrayals that test them always felt real—and relatable even to the most ardent of luddites. It’s a testament to the strength of its ensemble and the way Halt And Catch Fire has developed them that this season’s gut-punching forward jump of a finale didn’t feel like a gimmick, but a logical extension of who these characters have become and a reminder of how heartbreaking it’s going to be to say goodbye to them. [Sean O’Neal]

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5. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—Rachel Bloom’s exploration of one woman’s obsessive, semi-disturbed psyche through song and dance—is a feat of unbridled creativity that is almost as miraculously incisive as it is hilarious. The songwriting team ingeniously finds the right musical style to slyly comment on the action: Recently there’s been a tap number about “tapping that ass,” a pop-punk tribute to girls bonding with guys through sports, and a bizarrely dystopian riff on the Spice Girls about female friendships that references Hocus Pocus multiple times. With these interludes, the show constantly examines how people respond to popular culture and mold their lives to fit its ideals. Heroine Rebecca Bunch is the ultimate offender when it comes to buying into the narratives media sells. After all, she picks up and moves to West Covina to follow her “one true love” in the pilot. But Bloom and co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna never belittle Rebecca for her overly romantic brain. They craft each character delicately, layering them with depth, all the while hooking viewers with the same clichés they aim to lampoon. (Because who can resist a love triangle, really?) Even as it moved into its second season, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend didn’t lose steam. Now we just need to get more people to watch it—maybe viewership will be mandatory in Friendtopia (just like Hocus Pocus). [Esther Zuckerman]

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4. Better Call Saul (AMC)

It still seems unbelievable that a character who first came across as unsustainable comic relief in the dark world of Breaking Bad became not only a tonal linchpin of that show but also the beating heart of its own spin-off. And Better Call Saul showed no signs of slowing its fantastic burn in season two. There’s virtually no weak spot in the show, as evidenced by this year’s finale, which left a pair of cliffhangers that point toward even juicier stories to come. At the end of season one, people were anxiously asking when Jimmy McGill would become Saul Goodman; now we’re not so eager to get to the fireworks factory—not when there’s so much to chew on in this era. (Not to mention the fantastic flash-forwards to Cinnabon life.) Chuck McGill, played with nervous aplomb by Michael McKean, appeared to have finally been defeated by his brother’s mind games—those scenes surrounding the copy shop were brilliant—but he proves himself a solid con man in the season’s final moments. And then there’s Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut, whose no-nonsense approach to crime was again both funny and frightening. His story is unabashedly leading season three—likely premiering in February 2017—toward fan service by teasing the introduction of Breaking Bad’s antagonist, Gustavo Fring. [Josh Modell]

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3. The Americans (FX)

With each passing year, The Americans has faced skepticism that it will be able to continue its near-flawless balancing act: a juicy and complex spy thriller on one hand and richly drawn character study of a marriage and troubled family on the other. Each year, showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields manage to find bold new ways to continue the story without sacrificing either nuance or a grounded sense of reality, as Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys bore ever deeper into their characters’ knotty thicket of marital issues that suffuse every mission and miasma of subterfuge. This year, the Russian secret agents got an excellent and tragic foil in the form of Dylan Baker’s William Crandall, a fellow undercover agent whose decades of loyal service have left him bitter and broken—and a cautionary tale for Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, who are starting to wonder where this road of perpetual deception will end. The question of what makes someplace “home” was a key theme this year, and as the show zeroes in on the final two seasons, the anxieties that shaped the Reagan-era realpolitik are boiling over, leaving our protagonists in dangerous waters—and leaving viewers more invested than ever. [Alex McCown-Levy]

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2. Atlanta (FX)

Comedy and drama had a great year on FX, as evinced by the network’s strong showing in this list. Donald Glover’s Atlanta, which followed his character, Earn, as he tried to manage his cousin Paper Boi’s (Brian Tyree Henry) rap career, can be seen as a hilarious, potent combination of both genres. But even using that line-blurring description feels a bit like a disservice to the series. Because while there were certainly dramatic and comedic climaxes, Atlanta wasn’t just trying to ground its humor or help viewers laugh through the pain of hand-to-mouth living and police shootings. This “Twin Peaks with rappers” moved to multiple beats; it was every bit as experimental as Louie (if not more so) and as timely as The Daily Show. Glover and his director Hiro Murai broke off on surreal tangents that were compelling and baffling, putting Atlanta beyond the scope of a mere portmanteau. And the cast, including Keith Stanfield and Zazie Beetz, was game for all of it. As Earn, Glover provided a charismatic, mostly collected center, but Henry was the real MVP here. Like the series, his Alfred defied categorization. He’s an up-and-coming rapper who’s uneasy with fame, a teddy bear in beast mode. [Danette Chavez]

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1. The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX)

More than two decades after O.J. Simpson was acquitted of the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, the trial of the century returned to dominate TV. Whereas Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made In America put its focus on The Juice, The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story was all about the people: the heavy hitters familiar from the headlines, the minor players in the jury box and beyond, and the American public that made the whole thing such a sensation in the first (and now second) place. Despite the imprimatur and repertory cast (and a little bit of the tawdriness) of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the limited series managed to handle its tricky subject matter with a tremendous amount of grace—due in no small part to source material from Jeffrey Toobin, the supervision of the Ed Wood and People Vs. Larry Flynt team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, and a stable of directors that included John Singleton and Anthony Hemingway. Murphy helmed four installments, too, his keen eye fortunately outweighing his shaky command of tone. And there’s no denying that his involvement helped to build the series’ on-camera Dream Team, from his muse Sarah Paulson (giving the performance of her career) to big-movie-star booking John Travolta, who didn’t really embody Robert Shapiro (or any person who’s ever lived) but was utterly captivating nonetheless. Sterling K. Brown vaulted from the conflicted conviction of Chris Darden to a broadcast gig; Courtney B. Vance found the human beneath Johnnie Cochran’s courtroom showboat. From the vantage point of 2016—a year defined by an interminable media circus with a controversial conclusion—the events of The People V. O.J. Simpson almost appear quaint. But that doesn’t diminish its powerful examination of race relations, fame, the American legal system, and all the points where those things intersect. The initial broadcasts of the O.J. Simpson trial were a guilty pleasure for millions of viewers. The People V. O.J. Simpson still struggled to identify a guilty party, but they certainly weren’t the people tuning in to FX every Tuesday last winter. [Erik Adams]

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